Technology Is Great. Until It’s Not.

Remote education, especially synchronous sessions, opens us up to a whole host of unfamiliar obstacles that need unfamiliar solutions.

I’m in the middle of running a great online workshop. My participants are engaged and full of fantastic ideas about considerations that educators need to address when working with students remotely.

And then my power goes out. The derecho that clobbered the East Coast in early June knocked me and about a third of my participants out of the Zoom room.

Months earlier, before the pandemic, my son had a similar experience in an online literacy enrichment course. The teacher lost power, stranding a dozen children, suddenly unmuted, in a Zoom room. Chaos ensued. Children were literally screaming, undone by the uncertainty of what to do now. (My son had the good sense to call me over, at least.)

Condemned to a Comedy of Errors?

Four months into a mostly remote world, we all have stories like these to share. The Google Meet that kept giving participants an error message when they tried to enter the room. The screencasting app that only captured half the screen. The audio connection that just wouldn’t work, no matter how much troubleshooting you tried. The Wifi signal that crashed before Autosave kicked in, losing critical work.

And, though we may not want to acknowledge them, we also have stories of technology used inexpertly or ineffectively. The online course that’s just an undifferentiated list of links. The online class session that you spent looking straight up the teacher’s nose. The webinar you attended in which the presenter didn’t have the material open, leaving long stretches of “dead air” while trying to find the right file.

I got lucky on the day of the derecho. My workshop was full of overachieving professor-types, and they simply continued the conversation without me until I was able to log back in a few minutes later. However, the experience taught me an important lesson about the need to assume that there will be chaos and to plan accordingly.

Controlling the Chaos

Technology has the power to enrich educational experiences in truly transformative ways, and it also has the potential bring educational interactions to a grinding halt. We will never be able to control for every variable, but we can make choices that minimize chaotic impacts that pull students out of the teaching moment.

Assume You’ll Get Kicked Out

Have an easily actionable “power outage” plan. What do you want students to do if you get kicked out of the room, but they are still in? Establish those guidelines with them on the first day, and remind them periodically what they should do.

  • If you are teaching high schoolers or university students, make sure that you can quickly and easily send them a blast message in the moment to remind them of the plan (and provide any necessary updates).
  • If you teach younger kids, send that message to their caregivers as quickly as possible.
  • Having a prewritten script and distribution lists that you can access from your phone will make that process easier. Copy and paste your script into an email, announcement, or group text, and add any last-minute updates.

As for “what they should do,” there’s not one right answer for that. Base your plan on your students’ ability to work independently without direct oversight.

  • You might want them to stay put until you are able to get back in.
  • You might give them a time cutoff: if I can’t get back in within 10 minutes, log off and wait for instructions from me.
  • You might want them all to log off and log back in, especially if you use a “Waiting Room,” since that will keep students from instigating group chaos in your absence.
  • You might want to pre-assign an “emergency discussion” topic: “If I ever get kicked out of the session, discuss _________ while you are waiting for me to rejoin you.”
    • This option might work especially well if a power outage seems predictable (for instance, if a major storm is bearing down). You could also ask for volunteer discussion leaders to step in to prompt the

Have a Pre-Identified Plan B (and Plans C & D!) for Tech Problems

You’ve got a student who isn’t muted, but you still can’t hear them. You planned to use polls, but Zoom isn’t cooperating. You’re getting messages from students that they are being prompted for a password, even though the password is supposed to be embedded in the access link. You need a clear Plan B for common tech challenges, so that you don’t feel flustered in the moment.

  • Be prepared to share the access link and password at the start of every session, just in case that information is needed.
  • Decide where you stand on troubleshooting and have relevant information available.
    • If you feel confident providing troubleshooting yourself, know how to walk students through testing their audio and video connections.
    • If you don’t feel confident providing troubleshooting, know how to direct students to your school’s or district’s technology help desk.
  • Ask if there’s another device the student could try, but have a plan for following up with a student individually if they are unable to successfully participate in the class session.
  • If you plan to incorporate a tech-driven pedagogical strategy in a synchronous session (breakout rooms, polls, video or audio played during a synchronous session, shared whiteboards, etc.), have a fallback option to put in place quickly in case the tech doesn’t cooperate. The fallback options may not be as seamless or effective as the full-blown version, but having an immediate alternative at hand can help keep students engaged.
    • If polling doesn’t work, could you have students use the “raise hand” icon?
    • If your planned video won’t play correctly, could you send students the link and have them watch the video on their own devices?
    • If the shared whiteboard in your webconferencing system isn’t working, could you use a Google Doc or Jamboard and share your screen?

Test New Stuff in a Lower-Stakes Setting

Educational technology tools sometimes sound so cool. It can be tempting to debut the newest, latest thing. Cultivate a pack of educational guinea pigs to try out those tools before you take them live. Your testers don’t necessarily have to be students or colleagues. Got a weekly game night going with friends or family? Ask if you can host, and then try out polling or breakout rooms or whatever you plan to debut. Got a group of like-minded fellow educators? Try organizing a periodic “Test Session” where you all get to take turns testing and practicing the tech you plan to use.

When in Doubt, Go Simple But Effective

If you consider yourself technology-challenged, you don’t have to use all the bells and whistles. But do try to make sure that you are using the best possible pedagogy for the simpler tech strategies you are choosing.

  • You don’t need a gorgeous visual layout for your course structure, for instance, but your course should have a structure, not just links with no navigational guidance.
  • You don’t have to use every fancy feature of Zoom or Google Meet, but do make sure that your lighting and camera angle make it easy for students to see you.
  • You don’t have to produce a weekly update video if doing so seems daunting, but do try to send a consistent weekly announcement message to keep students on course and to keep them feeling connected.

Published by Jaime Lynn Longo

I am a composition scholar, an educational developer, a practitioner of transformative education both in and out of the classroom, and an accidental instructional design evangelist.

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